On a recent evening in Palm Beach Gardens, chef Luis Polanco had just finished preparing the frisée with lardons, grilled beef, and truffle-whipped potatoes, set aside the crème caramel, and carried his four-foot charcuterie board into the living room, when the frantic hostess made one more request.
As she whirled around the living room, counting cocktail glasses and poking at flower arrangements, she asked Polanco about the other beef dish—the one with rice, broth, and simmered vegetables. It was for her 120-pound dog, a mastiff who ate just as heartily as the guests, albeit without the truffles.
Polanco got this job through Executive Chefs at Home, a private-chef “matchmaking” service founded by former Boulud Sud executive chef Brian Arruda. The beef dish was nothing. “We’ve had clients order caviar for their dogs,” says Arruda. His service’s customers have included actors, businessmen, and athletes, from N.B.A. star Ben Simmons to Red Sox owner Tom Werner, to LoveShackFancy founders Rebecca and Todd Cohen.
Arruda is part of a group of culinary entrepreneurs who have joined the growing business of private-chef placement. Ten years ago, the few high-end chef-placement agencies that existed were, for the most part, outgrowths of domestic-staffing companies that also offered nannies and drivers. Today, more and more of these businesses focus on cooking.
They have harnessed the surge of freelance chefs who left the restaurant industry since the pandemic to venture out into private cooking in wealthy enclaves such as Palm Beach, Atherton, and Aspen and in big cities such as New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. Executive Chefs at Home, Private Chef Match, Private Chefs International, and other placement companies connect chefs with high-net-worth families willing to pay a cook up to $300,000 per year and sometimes more than $20,000 for a dinner party (including groceries.)
Other companies, such as the Culinistas and Resident, use freelance chefs for curated events. The Culinistas offers guests a variety of chef services, from single gatherings to weekly meal prep and long-term placements. A dinner for 16 people might cost less than $3,000, depending on the food choices. Resident hires chefs to cook in the dining rooms of luxury residential buildings and offers tickets to guests at around $200 each.
Arruda estimates that since the coronavirus there has been a tenfold increase in the number of private chefs on the market, including 90 percent of his friends, who, pre-pandemic, worked in kitchens. “There was a stigma, like, if you go private, you sell out,” he says. “But you make more money, you have more time, and one six-hour event can make you more money than a week and a half in a restaurant would.”
Al Martino, owner of Private Chefs International, one of the first high-end chef agencies that opened more than 50 years ago, says that along with the chef diaspora during the pandemic, diners’ changing tastes have also expanded the market for private-chef jobs. Clients want healthier food, focused on fresh Mediterranean cuisine, he says. “People are more conscious today about their diet, especially the ones who are well-to-do who can afford it,” says Mr. Martino, so they hire chefs who they know will use nutritious ingredients.
Many also still want to dress up for dinner, he finds, which often doesn’t happen at restaurants these days. “People don’t go out [to restaurants] dressed beautifully anymore,” Mr. Martino laments. “They’re not going to the beautiful places like Lutèce, Le Cirque, La Côte Basque, La Caravelle—since they’re all gone.” Now when diners want to dress up, they do it at home. “Going out to dinner used to be like going to the opera,” he says. “Now people are entertaining at home, making the food they want, since most restaurants simply aren’t up to it anymore.”
For this clientele, home includes the yacht and the jet. Daniel Wood, founder of Private Chef Match, which is based in San Francisco, says that he now has a full-time-job listing that only requires 10 days of work per month. He’s currently trying to recruit a “jet chef,” who would make from $150,000 to $175,000 per year plus benefits and work only on days the family is flying on their plane. The chef would prepare food at home the day before a trip, then cook in a hotel suite where the family is on vacation the day before departure. Recently, Wood placed a jet chef in a job that pays $200,000 per year but only requires him to cook two or three times a week. When the family vacationed in Hawaii for a few weeks, the jet chef had free time to frolic until the day before the flight home, when he started prepping food for the plane. Wood also finds chefs to cook on yachts. Depending on the size of the boat, the job could pay more than $150,000 per year for a 300-to-400-foot yacht, and often, the chef rotates on and off the boat every two months. Wood’s land-based chefs see salaries between $150,000 and $300,000.
“There was a stigma, like, if you go private, you sell out. But you make more money, you have more time, and one six-hour event can make you more money than a week and a half in a restaurant would.”
Arruda sees salaries in the same ballpark. The world he occupies now is a sharp contrast from that of his upbringing in Westerly, Rhode Island, where his parents were imprisoned on drug charges when he was eight years old. As he bounced around from one foster family to another, finally finding a permanent home with his school friend’s parents, who later adopted him, Arruda worked in kitchens through high school to make ends meet. When his adoptive parents took him in, he started cooking in their restaurant and jokingly told friends he wanted to attend the Culinary Institute of America upon graduation. Coincidentally, the nieces of the school’s admissions director had summer jobs in the same restaurant and helped him to get accepted.
Arruda went on to work for a series of high-profile restaurants, including a handful in Daniel Boulud’s empire. He was executive chef at Boulud Sud, in Lincoln Center, but when the pandemic hit he was furloughed. Lisa Plepler, the wife of former HBO C.E.O. Richard Plepler, currently C.E.O. and founder of Eden Productions, happened to know one of the Boulud executives and asked how she and her husband could support out-of-work chefs during the pandemic. The executive’s response: hire one.
Plepler and Lisa took in Arruda and his bulldog, hiring him as a private chef in Greenwich. There, he met the Pleplers’ prominent guests, some of whom asked if he had any chef friends looking for work. Did he ever. Arruda found himself introducing so many guests to chefs that he realized he could turn his connections into a business.
Two years later, he left the Pleplers to start Executive Chefs at Home, now a business with a roster of more than 400 chefs. He spends most of his time recruiting cooks who have worked in restaurants with Michelin or James Beard distinctions. Arruda uses their résumés to help match them with clients who like the restaurants where they’ve cooked. For example, if a client loves the Waverly Inn, he’ll find someone who has had experience there, or possibly still works there and wants to freelance on his or her days off.
For full-time positions, he’ll ask a family what kind of vibe they want a chef to have. LoveShackFancy owners Rebecca and Todd Cohen have two young daughters, so they were looking for someone fun and young and flexible; Arruda found them Maddy DeVita, a recent culinary-school graduate. “The first week or two I was saying to myself, ‘I definitely cannot do this,’” she remembers. “But in the past few weeks I’ve gotten into a routine.” She found the biggest adjustment between working in a home versus a restaurant kitchen to be the timing of the meal. Whereas at a restaurant you bring the food out when it’s ready, at home, you bring it out when the host is ready. “They might say, ‘We’re sitting at eight, but if they get sucked into a conversation, you’re not looking at the clock, so I always wonder if I say, ‘Please be seated,’ or do I just add 15 minutes to the time they give? If it’s been sitting out, it’s not going to taste as good.”
Arruda charges clients 20 percent above what the chef hopes to make, which is usually from $150,000 to $200,000 for a full-time job, or $100 to $120 per person for a dinner party. He’s had some requests that he couldn’t fulfill, such as finding a French-speaking chef who had cooked both in France and the United States and would be ready to leave to go to Europe the next day, but there are other requests that he’s more than happy to oblige. He says clients will routinely pay $2,500 for a dinner, then ask him to buy $20,000 worth of caviar on his credit card, earning him a fair amount of frequent-flier miles.
Arruda is already looking forward to the summer season, which he says is the busiest time of the year for chefs, at least those who travel to locales such as the eastern tip of Long Island and St. Tropez. It doesn’t matter what’s in season, he says. Ingredients become a status grab, from whose vintage of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is better to whose Wagyu flies in faster. “It’s absolutely insane—they all want caviar, they all want truffles, and everyone’s competing against each other,” he says. “I have to say, it’s fun to watch.”
Alexandra Wolfe, a former staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal, is the author of Valley of the Gods: A Silicon Valley Story